A fine, deeply felt saga of lives caught up in progress that’s as heartbreaking as it is hopeful.

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The River's Song

Class and cultural rifts in booming Singapore tear apart families and lovers in Lim’s (Fistful of Colors, 2003) affecting, lushly textured historical novel.

Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s isn’t yet a glittering metropolis—instead, it’s a warren of squatters’ shacks and crowded alleys, where young Wong Ping-ping struggles to survive. Her mother, Yoke Lan, a beautiful nightclub singer/courtesan who plays a Chinese instrument called the pipa, left her for Hong Kong to seek her fortune. Ping sleeps in a cage in a rooming house, working in the landlord’s cafe and local markets to earn money for school books. Her boon companion is Weng, the son of a poor family, who dreams of being a flautist; his father, a river worker, is also a pipa virtuoso who takes Ping on as a student. They lead a threadbare but rich existence in the multiracial bustle of Singapore’s Chinatown and along the colorful, decrepit banks of the city’s river. But then Yoke Lan returns with a rich husband, and Ping moves to their grand house, posing as a distant relative to hide her mother’s disreputable past. Ping’s new life is wonderfully advantaged but loveless and tense; meanwhile, her deepening involvement with Weng becomes complicated by their starkly diverging fortunes. Her stepfather’s business moves to evict Weng’s neighborhood from a riverfront where land values are skyrocketing along with Singapore’s economy. Fate carries Ping to America, and after decades, she returns to take stock of her fraught relationships with Yoke Lan and Weng. Singaporean novelist Lim paints an evocative, atmospheric portrait of old Singapore and its vigorous, sometimes-brutal transition to modernity. She shows readers deeply rooted communities bulldozed to make way for grandiose developments; populist movements pitted against brusque bureaucracies and police strong-arming; and traditional cultures crumbling before a new ethos of on-the-make capitalism and technocratic expertise. Her well-drawn characters bear the scars of this history—Yoke Lan, for example, is a bundle of brittle social ambitions and insecurities as she tries to fit in with the elite—yet they retain their vibrant individuality as they struggle to keep their feet amid the upheaval. Lim tells their story in prose that’s subtle, cleareyed and lyrical, linking a city’s rise with the emotional travails of its inhabitants.

A fine, deeply felt saga of lives caught up in progress that’s as heartbreaking as it is hopeful.

Pub Date: May 27, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-906582-98-2

Page Count: 363

Publisher: Aurora Metro Press

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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